Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Return to Seller: GlycoFi Next Tech to Exit Merck?

As the J.P. Morgan conference began to clog the San Francisco streets and restaurants on Sunday night, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals got the party started with a bang. In industry's first major deal of the year, Alnylam signed a broad agreement with Sanofi’s Genzyme Corp. and, separately and perhaps more dramatically, bought Merck & Co.’s RNA interference assets (essentially the remnants of Sirna Therapeutics) for $175 million ($25 million was cash and $150 million in Alnylam stock).

The latter deal unleashed the schadenfreude. Merck paid $1.1 billion for Sirna, then Alnylam’s biggest RNAi rival, back in 2006. It had been predictably if annoyingly tight lipped about any progress (or lack thereof) it was making with RNAi therapeutics ever since. And with 200 people within Merck working to surmount the therapeutic modality’s famous delivery challenges and more or less build an RNAi franchise for most of the past seven years, $1.1 billion was likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Why Alnylam wanted Sirna goes beyond (figuratively of course) putting the stuffed head of its former rival on the wall in the Cambridge company’s boardroom (but sure, on some level, that’s gotta be part of it?). Merck apparently did make some progress on sub-q delivery of RNAi and it had some IP that Alnylam likely wanted to tie up.

The broader point is that technologies once coveted by pharma but now seen as dead-end cost centers or just gathering dust may have utility – and potentially a lot of value – back out in the broader world. That’s been true for drug candidates for a long time – and we’ve seen plenty of deals where a company has acquired valuable drug compounds and eventually sold them off, even back to the VCs and executives that offloaded them in the first place (think Esperion, Vicuron, etc.).

Those originators are often the best placed to understand the compounds or technology and make another go at driving value. And Merck’s decision to part ways with Sirna and RNAi (and the ongoing reorganization the company’s R&D group) got us thinking about what other technologies the pharma may offload. One that comes to mind was another high-profile 2006 acquisition: the yeast-based antibody manufacturing play GlycoFi.

Allow us to speculate:

In May 2006 Merck plunked down $400 million to buy the technology. On a Sirna-scale, that’d mean a $10 million (or less!) down payment might be enough to extricate the technology. And GlycoFi founder Tillman Gerngross and his venture backers are now at the center of myriad antibody discovery partnerships via the decidedly profitable Adimab and a small handful of drug development start-ups enabled by the Adimab technology. They would be a logical set of suitors (Gerngross wouldn’t comment).

GlycoFi’s glycoengineering and optimization technologies would surely complement Adimab’s yeast-based antibody discovery tech. The company was never fully integrated into Merck and is still based in Lebanon, NH, home to Adimab and Gerngross’s other ventures (if the two companies don’t share an address, they’re at least within walking distance to each other near Dartmouth). GlycoFi was meant to enable Merck’s follow-on biologics strategy, but the big company’s ambitions around what is now biosimilars have shifted over the past several years. Biosimilars leadership specifically and R&D leadership more generally has turned over. GlycoFi’s ‘internal champion’ at Merck is likely gone. Merck is, like other big companies, shrinking its R&D footprint.

Adimab has somewhat famously – famous for the set that converges around Union Square in San Francisco this time of year, anyway – advertised its technologies and successful partnerships on the Powell-Mason cable cars that roll up the hill out front of JPM’s epicenter St. Francis hotel. The current biotech boom feels very much like a throwback and so it’d be fitting: maybe next year we’ll see GlycoFi on those cars instead?

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